Dental hygiene is a vitally important part of caring for any animal and problems with the teeth can cause different ailments and problems. As humans, we know how painful toothache can be and how it affects our appetite and mood. With guinea pigs, proper dental care is even more essential and, if their teeth aren’t cared for properly, then they could develop a variety of serious complaints.
Often called ‘eating machines’, when not sleeping a guinea pig will pretty much be munching away for most of its life so good dental care is crucial.
In this guide, we’ll take you through all the basics of the proper care of your guinea pig’s teeth and oral hygiene as well as answer your questions on what to do when there is a problem; from home-care and routine dental maintenance to when to take your pet to the vets.
Guinea pigs have 20 teeth in their mouths which consist of:
The sharp incisors at the front of the mouth are used for cutting food whilst the premolars and molars do all the grinding and chewing.
As a herbivore, guinea pigs do not have canine teeth but their incisors are separated from their molars with a gap known as a diastema.
The cheek pads protrude into this gap meaning the molars are virtually invisible without the aid of special instruments to look inside the mouth cavity.
Just like us, their teeth are covered with a protective white enamel. This is unusual in the rodent family whose teeth are typically yellow. However, this enamel is only found on the front of the incisors in order that the back can be sharpened like chisels.
This occurs as a result of the proper alignment of your guinea pig’s incisors with the upper teeth crossing in front of the lower teeth.
Guinea pigs are susceptible to common diseases of the mouth and teeth including plaque build-up, bacterial infections and abscesses but also specific problems which relate to the way their teeth grow.
Unlike many mammals, the teeth of your guinea pig are open-rooted; this means that they grow continuously. This is an essential distinction between rodents and other mammals; due to the heavy workload their teeth undertake to grind down their high-fiber diet, teeth like ours would quickly be worn down to the gums.
To prevent overgrowth and misalignment it is important that your guinea pig is given the correct diet with fibrous roughage to gnaw on.
The incisors of a healthy guinea pig can grow at a rate of 5 to 7.5cm each year. As long as they are aligned correctly, they will, roughly, be around 1.5cm in length.
Dental problems are one of the most common ailments that a guinea pig will suffer from during their lifetime. Whilst there are lots of ways to help these complaints from becoming serious, there are some common teeth problems from which they may suffer, including:
Malocclusion is the technical term given when teeth are incorrectly aligned and cause ‘bite’ problems. In guinea pigs this is a common occurrence as their teeth grow continuously. This means that if they are not being worn down at the same rate they are growing then they can become overgrown.
It is sometimes referred to as ‘the slobbers’ as overgrown teeth can prevent proper chewing and swallowing thus producing an excess of saliva, or drool.
Whilst there are a few ways we can help to prevent malocclusion in our pet pigs, there are some animals that are predisposed to this disorder. Often, this will be apparent from a young age and can be seen most often in baby pigs that are white with microphthalmia (small, or no, eyes).
Malocclusion of the incisors can often be identified visually and it is reasonably obvious if your pet’s front teeth are curving inwards and becoming longer that there is an issue. However, your guinea pig will usually let you know in other ways that there is a problem with their teeth beforehand.
One of the first signs is weight loss as the pig is unable to eat properly. Don’t mistake this with a disinterest in food as your pet will likely still show signs of hunger and attempt to eat what you provide them with. However, their preference will usually be for softer food.
You may also notice that their chewing becomes slower, more pronounced or accompanied by a grating sound. They may even partially chew food and then drop it.
In fact, one of the obvious signs that your pet pig is having problems chewing and swallowing food as a result of malocclusion is the presence of their favorite bits of food left on the floor of its house.
When you have a single guinea pig, it is easier to detect a change in eating habits but when there are two, the second will usually eat the extra food making it harder to judge who is eating what.
In this case, you should watch your guinea pig closely when it is chewing. If its ears waggle or twitch then this may indicate a problem with the molars. If these important grinding teeth aren’t aligned properly, the animal will need to take a harder munch in order to chew its food; this can cause the ears to wiggle.
Other symptoms include drooling, a distended jaw, lack of grooming, tooth grinding and signs of pain (hiding, lethargy, hunched position, reluctance to move etc).
Where teeth are unable to be ground down evenly, small spikes may form on the surface. These can be directed into the cheek which can cause abscesses and lesions which may result in infection.
Left untreated, malocclusion in your pet guinea pig will lead to malnutrition, weight loss and diarrhea. Eventually, the lack of sufficient food and intestinal fiber can cause death.
In extreme cases, teeth that continue to grow overlong can protrude into the mouth, trapping the tongue so your pig cannot swallow properly. In extreme cases, the tooth roots can even break through into the nasal sinus or eye.
For this reason, if you suspect your pet pig is suffering from malalignment and unable to eat properly then you should take them to see the vet immediately.
Only a trained veterinarian can correctly inspect and diagnose malocclusion in your pet pig. However, there are some visual signs that can give you a clue.
Malocclusion of the front teeth is usually pretty obvious and if the lower and upper incisors don’t meet correctly causing them to grow excessively then this could indicate a problem.
Malocclusion of the molars can also force the jaw forwards causing the lower incisors to meet with, or move forwards of, the upper incisors.
The presence of malocclusion can only be confirmed via an inspection of the oral cavity. Due to the fat pads in your guinea pig’s mouth that obscure the molars from view, it is not possible to do this at home. Your vet will likely sedate your pet and use buccal pads and dental instruments to give the teeth a thorough examination.
In most cases, owners present their pet guinea pigs to the vet far too late for any treatment to be effective and, unfortunately, euthanasia it is often the only option.
However, in less extreme cases and where properly diagnosed early enough, your vet may be able to treat your pet for malocclusion.
Tooth spikes can be removed and some correction can be administered via tooth clipping/grinding to healthy pigs whose mouths have not been permanently distended by this condition.
In some cases, your vet may remove a few teeth in order to alleviate the symptoms of malocclusion.
All surgery of this kind carries risks, particularly in animals this small, and possible complications from dental surgery include tooth root abscesses, chronic pain and damage to the jaw muscles.
In mild-moderate cases that are presented early enough, most guinea pigs will have a good prognosis but will require lifelong follow-ups to periodically trim the teeth.
It is far better to be proactive when it comes to this condition and prevention is better than any cure.
It is essential that you ensure your pet pig has an adequate source of abrasive and fibrous foods which include grasses, hay and even the small branches from fruit trees. This encourages the proper jaw action required when chewing to naturally grind down their teeth. This can be given in addition to dry pellets which contain a supplement of vitamin C.
Trauma to the teeth can also cause malocclusion so it’s important that you make sure your guinea pig is safe from the dangers of any falls. Always handle your pet with care and have a secure grip when you are transferring him, particularly if you are carrying him at height.
A fracture (or, break) in the tooth can occur as a result of trauma such as a fall or even from fighting. Fractures can also be caused by your guinea pig chewing on inappropriate things. This can include toys that aren’t suitable for your pet or if they are prone to chewing on cage wires.
A fracture can also result in incorrect trimming of the teeth which is why it’s important that you only let your vet perform dental maintenance of this kind.
Lastly, a poor diet can also cause your guinea pig’s teeth to be susceptible to fractures due to malnutrition.
Tooth fractures can leave your guinea pig with sharp and serrated edges inside their mouth which can cause lesions, punctures and sores inside their cheeks and around their lips. As a result, these open wounds can become infected and may cause pain and discomfort leading to loss of appetite.
Some fractures, such as those present in the front teeth (or, incisors) are visually apparent. However, fractures in the molars and premolars are commonly only identified via x-ray.
Depending on how badly damaged a tooth is, your vet may be able to trim or grind the affected area down.
However, if the break goes beyond the gum line then extraction of the tooth is the only option.
Due to the importance of symmetry with rodent’s teeth, the corresponding tooth on the opposite jaw would also need to be removed to prevent overgrowth.
Surgery is performed under anesthetic and may require your vet to make an incision in your pet’s cheek in order to access the roots. If the roots are not removed then the tooth could grow back.
Abscesses and infections in the roots can be caused by the inability to chew food properly and this becoming impacted in the gums. Alternatively, they can be a result of ulcers and lesions, caused by malocclusion, becoming infected by bacteria or fungus.
Infections are typically treated with oral gels such as those formulated for thrush in infants.
Unfortunately, if these are left untreated and become advanced then the only option for treatment is extraction of the infected tooth. On rare occasions, where the adjacent bone has also been affected, this may require additional surgery.
If identified early, most guinea pigs recover within 2-3 weeks using only topical medication but surgery is more invasive and carries other risks.
If you suspect that your pet pig has an issue with its teeth like any of those listed above then you can perform a basic examination at home to either put your mind at rest or confirm any suspicions prior to taking him to the vets.
Start by making sure that your hands are clean and then carefully towel wrap your pet. Holding him securely, on his back, place him in your lap where you have good light.
Holding his jaw between your thumb and index finger, start by looking at his incisors. They should be white and the lower ones slightly longer than the upper set. The upper incisors should fit snugly over the lower ones.
Placing the tip of your little finger into his mouth, feel along the gum line and beyond the diastema gap to the premolars and molars; about three quarters of an inch inside the mouth. The lower molars are easier to check and should be sufficient as a primary inspection as the upper molars are rarely the cause of problems.
There should be a gap of around 3/8 to 1/2 inch between the tops of the teeth and they should not be arching over the tongue.
Run the tip of your finger over the edges of the teeth to check for any breaks or tooth spikes.
Whilst you are performing this check, also ensure that his mouth is free from any scabs, lesions and sores. Also, check that the chin, chest and belly aren’t excessively wet from drooling.
If there are any abnormalities during your dental check then we’d recommend that you visit a veterinarian. Your practitioner will ask you for your findings and question you on other symptoms as well as a dietary history so it’s best to be prepared.
If your guinea pig’s teeth require trimming due to any of the conditions or complaints listed above then always ensure that this is done at a vet’s clinic.
Some websites and resources may suggest that you can trim your pet’s incisors yourself but this is not recommended. Incorrect trimming can cause damage such as tooth fractures and you may potentially be ignoring other problems; for example, if the incisors are misaligned then this could point to problems with the molars overgrowing.
Your guinea pig’s teeth do not have any nerves in them but trimming is usually performed under sedation using a general anesthetic. This is due to the fact that your pet will not willingly submit to invasive oral treatment of this kind and your vet will need to use several special instruments to carry out the trimming. All of this is stressful for a small animal so sedation is the preferred option.
Trimming involves the clipping away of some of the tooth itself and then filing the edges down to ensure they are free of spikes, burrs and rough edges.
After the procedure, and depending on how invasive this has been, your guinea pig may require some special post-operative care. Certainly, the recovery from an anesthetic can take its toll on your pet, particularly if they are old or unwell.
Depending on how intense the procedure has been your vet may prescribe some pain relief and critical care food for his recovery. It is recommended that you only offer soft fresh food in the first few days after dental work has been done. It will be a while before your guinea pig will return to his normal eating habits including hay and pellets. Your vet will be able to advise on an individual care plan following any treatment.
If your guinea pig has a problem with malocclusion then you should ensure that they are taken to the vet on a regular basis to have their teeth checked and, if necessary, trimmed.
Depending on how badly the misalignment was before it was initially treated, you should do this every 3-12 months. Your vet will be able to advise on the appropriate frequency of follow up visits.